VATICAN CITY --
As 250,000 people waved olive branches they had brought to St. Peter's Square for his Palm Sunday blessing, Pope Francis called on Roman Catholics, especially young ones, to bring joy to the world.
"Do not be men and women of sadness: a Christian can never be sad! Never give way to discouragement!" the 76-year-old pope said Sunday.
"Ours is not a joy that comes from having many possessions, but from having encountered a person, Jesus. [It comes] from knowing that with him we are never alone, even at difficult moments, even when our life's journey comes up against problems and obstacles that seem insurmountable ... [H]e accompanies us and carries us on his shoulders. This is our joy, this is the hope that we must bring to this world of ours."
The newly elected Argentinian has brought joy to Catholics across the spectrum. Acts such as personally calling his newspaper carrier in Buenos Aires to cancel his subscription have endeared him to common people. His first regular public Mass was the first Mass of Holy Week, Palm Sunday.
In Italy, most people carry olive branches, which is what many scholars say were likely the unspecified branches that crowds waved to honor Jesus as he entered Jerusalem. The region of Puglia had donated olive trees that decorated St. Peter's Square and about 2,000 olive branches for those who hadn't brought their own.
Pope Francis entered the square behind a procession of 620 laity, seminarians, priests, bishops and cardinals, who carried olive and palm branches. They stood in a circle around the obelisk at the center of the square, which was surrounded by a temporary garden of olive and flowering fruit trees. From the obelisk, which is a relic of the crucifixion of the first pope, St. Peter, he blessed everyone's branches before proceeding to the altar.
With cardinals seated in the first row, he spoke of Jesus' humility, of how he was welcomed by the poor and knew that the powerful would reject and kill him. Pope Francis quoted Pope Benedict XVI, who had told the College of Cardinals, "You are princes, but of a crucified king."
He also quoted his grandmother as he spoke of the countless sins that Jesus took on himself at his death.
"Let us look around: How many wounds are inflicted upon humanity by evil! Wars, violence, economic conflicts that hit the weakest, greed for money that you can't take with you and have to leave. When we were small, our grandmother used to say: a shroud has no pocket," he said.
"Love of power, corruption, divisions, crimes against human life and against creation! And -- as each one of us knows and is aware -- our personal sins: our failures in love and respect towards God, towards our neighbor and towards the whole of creation. Jesus on the cross feels the whole weight of the evil, and with the force of God's love he conquers it, he defeats it with his Resurrection."
The crowd was silent through most of his homily, but the young people burst into cheers and applause as he spoke of their faith and of his upcoming journey to Rio de Janeiro in July for World Youth Day.
"You bring us the joy of faith and you tell us that we must live the faith with a young heart, always, even at the age of 70 or 80!" he said.
Adeth Limas from Mexico was one of the young people who laughed and cheered when the pope spoke of the faith of the young and of World Youth Day. She was in Rome for the first gathering of Young International Catholics for Social Justice and was among those chosen to carry a palm branch in the procession.
"If I tried to take all of the water in the ocean into my heart, I could not explain how full it is, how beautiful it is," she said of the experience. "I feel that I love Pope Francis, even if I don't know him."
Keith Michael Estrada, coordinator of the office for justice and peace for the Catholic Diocese of Joliet, Ill., would have accepted any pope as chosen by the Holy Spirit. But Catholics interested in social justice have been thrilled by Pope Francis' solidarity with the poor and repeated expressions of concern for the environment.
Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict also showed environmental concern, Mr. Estrada said. "But for a pope to come out so soon with this message, my hope is that the church will take the lead on this in a new way. Not necessarily the secular approach to environmentalism, but protecting creation because it is a gift, not because it's a commodity."
Rohan Smith from Australia also was among those to carry a palm in the papal procession.
"To be able to hold the palm and prepare the way for the Lord, to do it for Christ with the Holy Father present, was an incredible experience," he said.
"I'm very excited about Pope Francis. So far his words and activities have shown a wonderful heart for people who are in need, for people who are forgotten. The church is in such wonderful hands. The Holy Spirit was truly there in the conclave."
Few people were more thrilled to be at the Mass than Virginia Bonard, a reporter for the Argentinian Bishops' Conference who has worked for and written about the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio for many years. People will see that he is sincere in his commitments, she said, although she worried that his words and deeds will draw powerful opposition.
"I never dreamed that he would be my pope," she said. Pope Francis "will work for peace, for the poor, for those without a voice."
The Rev. Fred Gruber, a newly ordained Pittsburgh priest, was among those standing closest to Pope Francis holding a vessel filled with hosts as the pope offered the Eucharistic prayer. Earlier, the pope had remained standing through the lengthy reading of the Palm Sunday gospel and while delivering his homily.
"His endurance for a man of 76 is remarkable," Father Gruber said.
While giving Communion in the crowd, Father Gruber ran out of hosts three times.
"It was so inspiring to see the fervor of the people and how eager they were to receive Holy Communion," he said. "They were packed so tightly in the square that it was hard for them to file in line to receive Communion."
For Pittsburgh seminarian Adam Potter, the joy of carrying an olive branch in the procession contrasted with the pope's somber reminder that the joy of Palm Sunday led to death on the cross.
"I appreciate that spiritually he's simple, but his Italian is simple, too. I can understand everything he says," he said. "He was talking about the joy that we all need to have, and the joy that he saw on the faces of the young people. He is able to make great connections between abstract theological ideas and reality."
Ann Rodgers: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1416. First Published March 25, 2013 4:00 AM